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editorial

Historic homes need residents

Restored pillars frame the front of the historic Alvah Kittredge house in Roxbury.
Restored pillars frame the front of the historic Alvah Kittredge house in Roxbury.Zack Wittman for the Boston Globe

Not every old mansion that falls into disrepair will get a fabulous $3.8 million renovation, but the conversion of the Alvah Kittredge House in Roxbury into five two-bedroom apartments underscores the value of putting old, dilapidated properties back into the marketplace. Built in 1836, the historic Greek Revival home had become an eyesore; because of its prominence, its decaying condition made it a blight on the neighborhood. After the city transferred control to the preservation group Historic Boston Inc., a mix of public and private effort turned a vacant, vandalized building into liveable space — and revitalized a prominent Roxbury neighborhood.

The Kittredge House may be an extreme example, but renovating historic properties for multifamily residential use can be a worthy way of guaranteeing their upkeep. While 19th-century captains of industry could afford to maintain rambling mansions, there’s no clear path when their heirs lose interest. One common approach is to open old houses to the public. But as a recent Globe Ideas article reported, there are more than 15,000 house museums in the country — many of them incapable of drawing more than a smattering of visitors. New England, in particular, may be approaching the point one might call “peak house museum.” Other options are needed.

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Historic designation can be an obstacle to renovating old properties; original details must be maintained, and panels consulted to review alterations. But that’s no reason to rule out public and private funds to get them back on the market, as the Kittredge House proves. It’s important to have people living in these properties again — watching out for repairs, making sure the walls get painted, and keeping copper-pipe thieves at bay.